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US experience with Pakistan may help it solve Turkey’s S-400 conundrum


The United States’ experience with Pakistan, once labelled the “ally from hell”, may provide valuable lessons for dealing with Turkey, researchers Aaron Stein and Robert Hamilton said in an analysis for War on the Rocks on Tuesday.

Washington is facing a dilemma in how to keep Turkey as an ally and help modernise its military after Ankara purchased S-400 air defence missiles from Russia. The United States has suspended Turkey from its F-35 stealth fighter jet programme in response, angering the Turkish government and forcing it to start developing its own replacement for ageing F-16s.

But US treatment of Pakistan provides a possible blueprint for how to satisfy Turkey while protecting its F-35s from Russia’s prying eyes. The S-400 could pick up valuable information about the most advanced US fighter jet, compromising its effectiveness.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Pakistan agreed to a programme that allowed US, technical security teams, to monitor the end use of upgraded F-16s. A similar model could be used to keep tabs on any Turkish use of F-35s and ensure a “highly circumscribed S-400 deployment”, Stein and Hamilton said.

“The application of this strategy to Turkey faces a number of challenges, particularly given the state of Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with the United States and other Western countries,” they said. “However, it may be the only realistic approach to protect the F-35 programme and America’s interest in a capable Turkish Air Force.”

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Turkey has made a political decision to not activate the S-400s and to keep them in storage, for now. The United States would have to verify that Turkey is not using the system, perhaps as part of a broader arrangement that includes Ankara buying F-35s, Stein and Hamilton said.

Washington and Ankara could first pursue confidence-building measures such as a bilateral, one-day conference focused on the threat of Russian surface-to-air missiles and the mothballing of Turkish-Russian negotiations to purchase a second S-400 regiment, they said. The event could be labelled as a technical working group, a proposal Ankara has already made to address the S-400 issue, they said.

“The meeting could focus on an exchange of data about the S-400 and other surface-to-air missiles, perhaps including the Pantsir system that Turkish drones have had some success against in Syria and Libya,” they said. “This mechanism would allow [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to communicate to his own base that the United States had capitulated to a key demand, giving him space to sell a compromise with Washington.”

The symposium should then serve as a springboard to a wider agreement on the S-400, the analysts said. Turkey could agree to declaring that Ankara’s Akıncı Air Base would be the only location for the S-400 regiment and the two governments could then draw up an arrangement to monitor this with open-source satellite imagery, collected each day and shared between the two sides, Stein and Hamilton said.

“This mechanism would then be augmented with periodic site visits to verify the satellite imagery - a requirement that Congress is certain to demand before approving a major weapons sale to Turkey - beginning with the approval of exports to support a Turkish F-16 life-extension program,” they said.

Turkey could further build confidence by providing the United States with a complete list of S-400 equipment by serial number, they said.

“During site visits, US inspectors could inventory the equipment to ensure it remains in storage. The goal here would be to inventory 100 percent of the S-400 equipment each year - a practice that would verify that the deployment site is not changed in secret and allow the United States to learn a bit more about a system it trains to defeat (an outcome Russia would almost certainly object to),” Stein and Hamilton said.

“In any case, since the United States already does this with sensitive military equipment it provides to foreign partners (including Turkey), the Turkish armed forces will be familiar with this requirement,” they said.

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Turkey could then be allowed to purchase the F-35 after a set number of visits to inspect the S-400s. Six F-35s originally earmarked for Turkey but now stored in the United States could then be sent quickly to the Turkish air force, according to Stein and Hamilton.

Ankara should also allow US technical teams to be stationed at the Malatya Air Base, where it had planned to station the F-35s. The teams would be tasked with recording when the F-35s fly and ensure that they do not do so on any days when Turkey is testing the S-400, Stein and Hamilton said.

“In this scenario, Ankara could have windows of time to perform operative tests, or keep trained S-400 crews current, leaving the work to the US teams embedded at Malatya to verify the non-flight of F-35s on days when the S-400 is active,” they said. “American personnel could also review the F-35 logs to check for S-400 radar emissions to further verify that the two systems were not operated at the same time.

“This would be an arduous process for the Turkish Air Force, but it is the reality that Ankara now faces,” they said.

Turkey and the United States have significant political differences over events in the region, but the state of NATO’s collective defence matters more than bilateral spats between two long-time allies, according to Stein and Hamilton.

“Ankara risked the security of the F-35 program with its S-400 purchase. There is a pathway to try and overcome this issue, but it will require creative thinking to verify the non-deployment and highly circumscribed use of the S-400,” they said.